Checkpoints and Chokepoints: The Rocky Road to Peace in the Bangsamoro

For the past three years, the acronyms FAB, CAB and lately, the BBL encapsulated key points in the rough road characterizing the peace talks between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Government of the Philippines (GPH). FAB, CAB and BBL stand for Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, and the Bangsamoro Basic Law respectively.

Considering the Filipinos’ proclivity to use acronyms—from the meaningful to the outrageous—this is nothing new and remarkable. But in the case of the MILF-GPH peace process, these acronyms have taken on significant meanings, not only in the literal sense, but also in identifying important landmarks—checkpoints and chokepoints—in the rugged road to peace in Mindanao, especially in the Bangsamoro.

On October 15, 2012, the panels of the two parties signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB), and this elicited wide euphoria on the looming positive outcome of the long drawn-out process. The MILF talks with the Philippine government commenced more than 17 years ago, spanning the administrations of at least three Philippine presidents: Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and starting June 2010, Benigno S. Aquino III. Public enthusiasm and excitement over the imminent closure of such a tedious and circuitous peace process was palpable, not only in the core territories of the envisioned Bangsamoro, but also in the contiguous and even in other regions in Mindanao and in many parts of the country. For some civil society leaders, just the mention of the word “Bangsamoro” by the President in a statement read on national television was enough to move them to tears. After all, it was the very first time a sitting president of the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, would recognize on national television the existence of a separate and distinctive identity of the Bangsamoro.  

The FAB led to the creation of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), through Executive Order (EO) 120 that President Aquino signed as early as December 2012. It was tasked to draft the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the organic act that would create and provide guidelines for the workings of the envisioned Bangsamoro government that will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) by 2016. As EO 120 provided, the BTC was composed of 15 members, 8 of whom were nominated by the MILF; the rest were nominated by the Philippine government. It was also President Aquino who signed the appointment of all BTC members.

ARMM as failed experiment

For more than 20 years since its creation, the ARMM has been the poorest region in the country, with its provinces occupying the bottom rungs of the Philippine’s human development ladder. The original four provinces that constitute the ARMM—Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, the island provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi—have always been tagged as members of the country’s “Club 20” (the “club” of poorest provinces in the country). After a plebiscite in 2001, the ARMM expanded to include the island province of Basilan and the city of Marawi, a city in Lanao del Sur province, courtesy of Republic Act 9054 (An Act expanding the coverage of the ARMM, and other purposes). Like the original members, the two additional areas also exhibited the same low levels of human development indices compared to other provinces in the country.

From 2006 to 2012, encompassing three periods of the national government’s triennial household census, the region exhibited only one instance when its poverty incidence dipped, although just by a fraction of 1 percent (from 40.5 percent in 2006 to 39.9 percent in 2009). But such a minuscule drop was wiped out with a whopping 8.7 percent increase in the next census in 2012, when its poverty incidence was reported at a very high 48.7 percent (roughly half the number of people in the region) classified as living below the poverty threshold. In actual numbers of families, this percentage translates to 271,355 families, and if this is calculated using the average number of individuals per household of 6 (2 parents and 4 children) – this is roughly 1,628,130 individuals. As of 2012, the total population of the region was a little over 3 million. 1 See Table 1 below for details.

Table 1. Poverty Incidence and Magnitude of Poor Families in the ARMM, 2006, 2009 and 2012*
Poverty Incidence among families (%)
Magnitude of poor families
  2006 2009 2012 2006 2009 2012
ARMM 41 40 49 205,834 212,494 271,355
Basilan 28 29 49 14,137 14,787 16,832
Lanao Sur 39 49 67 51,408 68,770 100,946
Maguindanao 46 43 55 70,665 67,899 87,800
Sulu 35 36 40 39,478 42,530 51,278
Tawi-tawi 50 29 22 30,146 18,518 14,999

*Culled from the Regional Development Plan in the ARMM Updates, 2013. p. 22.

In terms of annual per capita poverty threshold, the amount (in US dollars) is quite measly, ranging from US$266 to$400 (see Figure 1 below). The increases in the per capita poverty threshold are dictated by inflationary factors extraneous to the region. In other words, these are not the results of decreasing poverty incidence.

A significant decrease in poverty incidence was recorded in the island province of Tawi-Tawi from 2009 to 2012, at almost 20 percent from its original level of 50 percent in 2006. But this lone outstanding performance dimmed in comparison with the increasing number of poor families in the four other provinces in the region. Two provinces—Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur—figured prominently in the significant spikes in their poverty incidences, with an average increase of 15 percent from their 2009 records (43 percent to 55 percent and 49 percent to 67 percent respectively, in 2012). The two provinces are also the location of several pocket wars and skirmishes classified as horizontal conflicts. Such conflicts are popularly referred to in the literature as “rido” or vengeance fighting among rival political families or among families that have been engaged in grudge relationships for several years now. 2

Figure 1. Annual Per Capita Poverty Threshold in US dollars, 2006, 2009 to 2012


As the only autonomous region in the Philippines, the ARMM was envisioned then to have turned the tide for its impoverished communities after the protracted armed conflict. But year after year of its existence, with a representative of the three dominant ethno-linguistic groups in the region at its helm, the ARMM has instead created a popular image that it was a “failed experiment” in autonomous rule in the Philippines. Governance is also perceived to be weak, or even absent in many LGUs (local government units) in the ARMM, starting from the lowest unit, the barangay, to the provincial levels. Local chief executives in impoverished towns in the ARMM provinces are known to be in their opulent residences outside their LGUs, in progressive cities like Davao, Cagayan de Oro and General Santos or in middle income cities like Koronadal and Tacurong in south-central Mindanao.

A recent assessment on the state of local democracy (SoLD) in the ARMM describes people participation in governance as minimal, only as voters in elections held every three years. 3 But such minimum participation is further weakened, as voting can be manipulated: powerful political clans and other influential leaders can impose a “command vote” among ordinary citizens. Poor voters in areas hard to access in the countryside are “commanded” to vote for certain candidates in exchange for cash or some form of “protection,” as wards of a political patron.

Throughout its electoral history, the ARMM provinces have been considered “hotspots” and have always been on the watch list of the national Commission on Elections (Comelec). The autonomous region has recorded the most number of election-related deaths in the 2010 elections, thus confirming its negative image as a violence-prone area, with 58 people killed in one instance out of a total of 117 election-related killings in the entire Mindanao region. 4 The 58 were victims of the Maguindanao massacre (aka Ampatuan massacre) that happened in a remote area near a highway in Barangay Salman, Ampatuan municipality, on November 23, 2009. Among those killed were journalists and civil society leaders who accompanied the family of then candidate Ismael Mangudadatu (now governor of Maguindanao province) to Cotabato City to file Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy. The massacre has now gone down as the goriest and most brutal election-related incident in Philippine contemporary history. As of this writing, the alleged suspects in the massacre still remain in detention, without having yet been convicted, after five long years.

Promised road map to peace?

On March 27, 2014, the long anticipated historic event finally took place. The panels of both the MILF and the government signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) on that memorable day. Everyone, from government sector groups and civil society was in a celebratory mood. Ecstatic crowds displayed their “unwavering” support to attain genuine peace in Mindanao in various rallies organized in many parts of Mindanao, even in areas where Bangsamoro peoples only comprised the minority population, like in General Santos City.

“It is too good to be true,” remarked many of the Maguindanaon Muslim attendees in the rally at the General Santos City Plaza, with crowds estimated to have reached between 6,000 to 10,000 people. The city plaza was literally filled up to the rafters that day. I learned later that the crowds were composed of Maguindanaon Muslims from several towns in the nearby province of South Cotabato and even as far as Tacurong in Sultan Kudarat. “I never thought I would live to the day of the signing of this important agreement, Alhamdullilah” said an older Muslim Moro attendee, who withstood rheumatic pain in his knees just to attend the rally.

Such festive mood dominated both civil society and local government units within and outside the region, with local politicians making pronouncements on their “full support” to the Bangsamoro government. Huge tarpaulins and streamers, expressing whole-hearted support to the CAB and the envisioned Bangsamoro, dotted the highway from General Santos City to the city of Cotabato, the seat of the ARMM, which soon will be the center of the Bangsamoro government by 2016. Greetings came from prominent local government officials, military leaders, as well as private sector figures.

But the celebratory mood did not last long; collective disappointment replaced it in the next few months. In April, the work of the BTC was finished and its members were ready to present the draft BBL to the Philippine government. As provided in the CAB, once submitted to the government, the BBL would be certified by the President as an urgent bill for Congress to deliberate on, and passed as a law. Time was of the essence here, as the next Congress was soon to reconvene in late July, after President Aquino’s 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA). But no certification of the BBL as an urgent bill happened.

High expectations were soon doused with a barrage of unfavorable comments and feedback from the Presidential Legal Team, which subjected the draft BBL to meticulous scrutiny. The team’s review of the draft BBL, according to a source privy to the peace talks, resulted in a “menstruatingly (sic) or bleeding red” draft, referring to the comments written in red all over the draft.

The public clamor for a glimpse of the draft BBL was also ignored by both panels. But they also rationalized that no one among them was authorized to release even an outline of the BBL’s basic provisions or contents. In the meantime, public anxiety intensified, even among peace advocates. The common question among them was: why is the draft BBL not released for us to read or review? One leading peace advocate and prominent civil society leader, Fr. Eliseo R. “Jun” Mercado, Jr., OMI commented that since the draft BBL was not released to the public, there was no way the public could participate in making suggestions or recommendations to improve the draft. 5

"ARMM Regional Building" by George Parrilla - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

The Office of the Bangsamoro People, the seat of the ARMM regional government in Cotabato City
“ARMM Regional Building” by George Parrilla – Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The let down

On July 28, 2014, President Aquino delivered his 5th State of the Nation Address before top officials of the country, including members of the two houses of Congress, and influential civil society leaders. For many advocates, sympathizers and followers of the peace process with the MILF, the President’s address was a huge disappointment in many ways, both in substance and even in the observance of what one prominent journalist refers to as “good manners and right conduct (GMRC),” something that any Filipino is expected to have learned in elementary school.

The date of the 5th SONA coincided with the celebration of one of the two most important holidays among Muslims, 6 the Eid-l’Fitre, or the end of the holy month of Ramadhan. As president of a country with a significant Muslim minority, Aquino was expected to have prefaced his 5th report to the nation with greetings of “Eid Mubarak” to the Muslims, especially the MILF panel members, who were among the audience that day. The president also did not acknowledge their presence before delivering the essence of his speech. How can the highest and most important leader of the country not display “good manners and right conduct” before the delivery of his address?

In terms of content, the 5th SONA only made a short, two-paragraph reference to the draft BBL. Almost everyone who closely followed the progress of the GPH-MILF peace talks expected more, since the silence that enveloped the whole BBL prior to the SONA was attributed to not pre-empting presidential opinion on it. And because no significant pronouncement on the BBL was made during the SONA, observers concluded, and rightfully so, that the President was not really quite serious about forging peace in the Bangsamoro, as earlier hyped by his subalterns. Hyping on the BBL and the whole peace process may just be part of a political rigmarole of the president and his men and women to convince the people of their concern for the Bangsamoro, however superficial it is.

In July, public disappointment further intensified, as invariably expressed in many outlets, including social media like Facebook and Twitter. As a result the two panels (MILF and the Philippine government) agreed to have a 10-day “workshop” in early August (first few days until the 10th) at the Waterfront Insular Hotel in Davao City. An “independent” panel of lawyers also joined the workshop to facilitate the discussions aimed at “ironing out” differences between the two panels on the BBL. The phrase “ironing out” implies that something has got to give – or be “flattened out” as a result. Would this mean the MILF will bend over backwards once again, to succumb to what the central government wants?

No final common draft came out of the 10-day workshop, as there were still some issues left unresolved, foremost among them, the proposed structure of the new Bangsamoro government. As provided for in the CAB, the Bangsamoro government is asymmetrical to the national government – it will have a ministerial government in contrast to the Philippine national government’s unitary structure. The disagreements in the workshop led to extending the deadline for the draft for another 8 days, until August 18, 2014. As of this writing, the public eagerly awaits for the final, commonly agreed BBL.

Several press releases were issued, and many newspaper headlines screamed alleged “accusations” from the MILF about having been betrayed by the national government leadership. To this, the chair of the MILF panel and the head of the BTC quickly issued a firm denial of the accusation, saying among others that the MILF still hopes for a peaceful resolution to the impasse. Such denial was confirmed with the signing of the MILF of a joint statement with the Philippine government, through the Executive Secretary, on the two panels’ agreement on a common BBL draft as of August 14, 2014 (four days before the extended deadline).

The rugged road continues

The protracted MILF-GPH peace process that spanned more than 17 years is that of a rugged road with checkpoints in forms of several peace agreements and accords as well as joint initiatives to forge peace in the conflict-affected areas in Mindanao. But the chokepoints—the disagreements and heated discussions, including allegations of violations of ceasefire agreements on both sides—are quite numerous and daunting. President Aquino’s widely hyped “matuwid na daan“ (straight path) toward good governance and sustainable peace in Mindanao maybe straight indeed, but it is pockmarked with huge rocks and potholes that can derail smooth passage.

Many of those who have seen this long and checkered peace process have become frustrated. They think that after all is said and done, all the hype about a “presidential” peace process is still what it is – just a farce. For them, the Bangsamoro are just given a ride – a ride for them to pin their hopes for a peaceful future on a draft basic law that will never see its approval, as it was originally formulated. It might pass through a predominantly Christian Congress, after some arm-twisting from the Office of the President, through the PAPP (presidential adviser to the peace process). But it might be a version that is quite emasculated and drained of the long-delayed “affirmative action” or transitional justice that is due the Bangsamoro.

But, there are those who still believe in the proverbial silver lining after the storm. And I am one of them. It is true there are pockmarks along the road that goes toward lasting peace. But it also behooves on all of us – constituents who believe in the virtue of peace over war – to contribute to this arduous and challenging task through collective action. Peace cannot be forged only at the top – those in the middle and at the bottom of the social structure also have their own significant roles to play in the collective efforts toward durable peace. Such collective action can be in the form of helping remove the road blocks and pockmarks along the way, through our joint efforts of problem solving, conflict resolution at the community level, and helping nurture the seeds of peace among our children and youth. 

Rufa Cagoco-Guiam
Professor III, Department of Sociology, College of Social Sciences and Humanities, and Graduate Program in Public Administration; Director, Campus – Institute for Peace and Development in Mindanao, Mindanao State University – General Santos City 9500, Philippines.

Read more APBI articles on the Southern Philippines HERE


  1. Data culled from the Regional Development Plan Update for the ARMM. 2013. Cotabato City: Regional Planning and Development Office, ARMM, pp. 22-23.
  2. For more details on the incidence of rido fighting in different parts of the ARMM and in Mindanao, please refer to Wilfredo Magno Torres III, ed., Rido: Clan Feuding and Conflict Management in Mindanao, expanded edition, (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Printing Press, 2014).
  3. The author participated as one of the local researchers in the project, and as one of the co-authors of the book on the subject. See Edna Estifania Co, et. al., State of Local Democracy in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (SoLD ARMM): A Citizens’ Assessment (Quezon City and Stockholm: National College of Public Administration and Governance, University of the Philippines at Diliman, Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy and the International Institute for Democratic Electoral Assistance (IDEA), 2013).
  4. For details, please refer to the articles included in Chua, Yvonne and Luz Rimban, eds. 2011. Democracy at Gunpoint: Election-Related Violence in the Philippines. Makati City, Philippines. The Asia Foundation and Vera Files.
  5. From a conversation with Fr. Jun in his office as Senior Policy Adviser of the Institute of Autonomy and Governance (IAG), Notre Dame University Campus, Cotabato City, June 23, 2014.
  6. The second most important Islamic holiday is the Eid’l Adha, or the Feast of the Holy Sacrifice, to recall the time when the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham – peace be unto him) was about to slaughter one of his sons, Ismael, as required as sacrifice by Allah (swt).   The slaughter never happened, but it showed Prophet Ibrahim’s submission to God (Allah swt), to follow his will. It was God’s test of Ibrahim’s faith, which is now enshrined in Islamic tradition as a very holy and important day among Muslims.

4 Comments on "Checkpoints and Chokepoints: The Rocky Road to Peace in the Bangsamoro"

  1. Alfie Q. Agang | 2014-09-27 at 7:11 am |

    Yes, mahirap ipasa ang batas na ito for it will bring problems particularly in peace and development in Mindanao. May mga opponent forces ang pagkasa ng batas na ito sapagkat ayaw nila and immediately, gagawa sila ng mga kaguluhan na kukuha sa attensyon ng Pambansans pamahalaan kagaya ng nangyari sa Zamboanga Siege at iba pang karatig lugar.

    Pero, i strongly believe na dapat na ikasa ang BBL ng gobyerno para ibigay ang matagal ng minimithi ng mga kapatid nating Moro na magkaroon sila sariling pamahalaan na sila ang mamalakad, at iba pa….i also agreed and convinced to Professor Guiam na very rocky ang road sa pagkamit ng kapayapaan na kinahaharap sa pagkasa Bangsamoro Basic Law.

  2. Dear Alfie Q,
    Thank you very much for your comment. (For our readers, please see the APBI rough translation of the comment below.)

    “Yes, it is difficult to pass this law for it will bring problems particularly in peace and development in Mindanao.
    There are some opponents, forces that are against the law, and because they do not want it, they will make trouble to gain the attention of the national government like we have witnessed at the Zamboanga Siege and other places.

    However, I strongly believe that the government should accommodate the BBL so that we should give our brother Moro the autonomous government which is run by themselves, what they have long aspired for. But I also agree and and am convinced by Profess Guiam saying that the road ahead of the Bangsamoro Basic Law may be very rocky to achieve peace.”

  3. Still, there are huge if not gigantic reservoirs of unrealized things in this realm of the Bangsamoro struggle. Let’s hope that the recent agreements can create genuine windows to realize inclusive planning and management.

  4. Hi Saj,
    thanks for your comment.

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